NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s biggest ally, the US, views China as an emerging threat that won’t play by the rules, and NATO addressed concerns over China for the first time last week. Norway, meawhile, remains intent on negotiating a new free trade deal with the non-democratic China that’s under fire for massive human rights abuses. Critics in Norway claim it’s just another example of how the Norwegian government always ranks its own economic interests highest.
“Trade interests seem to be put ahead of everything else,” claims one former prime minister, Thorbjørn Jagland, who recently returned to Norway after serving for the past 10 years as secretary general of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. He was speaking at an international seminar held in his honour by the Labour Party he once led and the trade union federation LO.
Jagland also pointed out some interesting differences between China and Russia, the latter long seen as NATO’s main enemy. “Both countries have annexed territories in violation of the rule of law,” Jagland said, “but Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and thus has no death penalty, can’t use torture or forced labour. It’s totally fobidden, yet China has all three things.”
That makes it a paradox, Jagland noted, “that we only have sanctions against Russia.” Geopolitical and trade interests often have higher priority than consideration for human rights and a state governed by law, Jagland said: “When it comes to China, trade is more important than anything else.”
Silent on Uighurs and Hong Kong
Norway, for example, claims to be a champion of democracy and human rights but has remained remarkably quiet on China’s alarming treatment of its Uyghur minority. The forced confinement of more than a million Uyghurs has been referred to in the US Congress as the largest internment of an ethnic group since the Holocaust, while others in the region are subjected to massive surveillance and persecution. China claims it’s merely “re-educating” the Uyghurs in an effort to fight terrorism, while critics view it as an effort to block all and any challenges to the power of China’s communist party and its leader Xi Jinping.
Norway, meanwhile, has offered little if any public support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, unlike the US and many other countries including other members of NATO. Months of huge public protests and demonstrations by Hong Kong residents desperate to retain their freedom and democracy under Chinese rule have been all but ignored by Norwegian government leaders.
Not even new pressure from the country Norwegian leaders view as their most important ally, the US, has succeeded in getting Norway to question or challenge China’s authority. Last week Norway found itself in a new squeeze, after the US succeeded in efforts to get NATO to publicly “acknowledge” that China’s growing influence and international policies pose both opporunities and challenges. It wasn’t very tough language, and likely was watered down from what the US wanted, but it did mark the first time China is even mentioned in an official declaration from NATO.
Pro-democracy and human rights advocates in Norway had hoped Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide would use the NATO declaration as an excuse to finally become more critical of China. Both represent Norway’s Conservative Party that once was behind the nomination of the late, then-jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Jagland led the Norwegian Nobel Committee at the time and strongly defended the Peace Prize to Liu that promptly led to a six-year diplomatic freeze between China and Norway. Chinese leaders, who won’t tolerate any challenge to their authority, were furious and embarrassed by the Peace Prize and blamed the Norwegian government, even though it has no say in the evaluation of winners.
Instead the Solberg government seems most keen on not offending China again, after negotiating a controversial truce with China in 2016 that finally thawed the diplomatic freeze. Government officials on both sides continue to negotiate a free trade agreement while top Norwegian officials shuttle back and forth to Beijing. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was Norway’s prime minister when China first froze out Norway and his government refused to go along with China’s demands for restoring relations. He went along with the urging of US President Donald Trump, who’s been involved in a trade war with China, to put China on NATO’s agenda: “For the first time in NATO’s history, we will sit down with NATO’s leaders to discuss China’s development,” Stoltenberg told Norwegian new bureau NTB before last week’s NATO meeting began.
It had to be uncomfortable for both Solberg and Søreide, but they tried to shake it off. Søreide claimed discussion of China had come up gradually, especially in the last year, but she downplayed it. “It may seem strange that a regional security organziation like NATO, which is for the North Atlantic, should also be concerned with what’s happening outside its geographic area,” Søreide told NTB. “But NATO has always done that.”
China ‘no direct threat’
Søreide also stressed that “no one” views China as a “direct threat” to NATO, only that the alliance must acknowledge how world power is moving from west to east. NATO has had to recognize China’s growing economic and technologic power and the fact that it has the second-largest defense budget in the world and a keen interest in the Arctic.
“It’s more a question about how this will come to influence security in the long run,” Søreide told NTB. “No one has an answer to that question yet.”
Meanwhile, negotiators in her ministry and several others are busily working on Norway’s long-awaited free-trade agreement with China that was close to being agreed during the Stoltenberg government when the Nobel Peace Prize spoiled it all. Newspaper Klassekampen reports that it’s likely to be signed in 2020, no matter what kind of pressure the US puts on Norway. Norwegian seafood exports to China have doubled this year alone and Norwegian government leaders want to maintain that sort of export income (which already has passed an historic total of NOK 100 billion so far this year), especially since oil revenue is likely to decline.
US efforts to get Europe, and Norway, to tighten trade with China, haven’t worked yet. Both Solberg and Søreide denied that pressure from the US will create problems for a free-trade pact between China and Norway. Norway sold around NOK 20 billion worth of goods to China last year and is negotiating for more market access in China, while China wants more access to bidding on large infrastructure projects in Norway.
Asked whether such projects would heighten tension between Norway and the US or other NATO allies, Solberg dismissed such risk: “I don’t think they’re worried about a bridge in Western Norway.”
Security issues tied to Norway’s NATO membership may halt other Chinese projects in Norway, however, including Huawei’s much-debated effort to win Telenor’s contract to build out its 5G network. Norway’s police intelligence agency PST has warned against Huawei.
Søreide noted that Trump’s trade war with China was the reason China landed on NATO’s agenda in the first place, to discuss how NATO should deal with China. “All countries must arrange their own relations to China, based on each country’s own interests,” she said. “That’s what Norway is doing.”